Monthly Archives: June 2018

Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One – Tate Britain

Christopher Nevinson - Paths of Glory [1918]

Otto Dix once wrote that “artists should not proselytise or reform… all they have to do is bear witness”, a quotation that accompanies a fascinating selection of prints entitled The War that have much to say about the impact of the First World War both on the physical body and on the creation of art in Britain, Germany and France in the ensuing years. In Tate Britain’s carefully curated new show Aftermath, the physical, political and emotional cost of conflict is writ large in an extraordinary combination of work, predominantly from men who served, arguing that the depiction of loss, devastation and destruction had far reaching effects for artists across Europe.

As the four-year commemoration programme draws to a close, it is timely to reflect on the welcome diversity and creativity that has resulted in an insightful and more inclusive approach to public memorialisation. No longer a hymn to soldier poets alone, we have seen reflections on the role of all three services, with dedicated Great War exhibitions at the National Maritime Museum and RAF Museum, while the Science Museum’s focus on technological innovation delivered the impressive Wounded: Conflict, Casualties and Care about the medical response to war. A variety of activities and publications also examined the experience of war from the new perspectives and properly brought them into the public realm for the first time, giving voice to colonial recruits, allies, official “enemies”, female service personnel, refugees and those on the Home Front which has permanently enriched our understanding of this crucial period in European history.

Culturally, there have also been substantial and memorable contributions, not least from Paul Cummins and Tom Piper whose glorious display of poppies cascading down the walls of the Tower of London, filling the moat, was an unforgettable start to the programme back in 2014 – the sale and subsequent tracking of those poppies is a piece of social history that is of enormous value to our understanding of the longevity of emotional responses to this conflict. Equally powerful was Rufus Norris and Jeremy Deller’s physical living artwork We Were Here where young actors dressed as soldiers appeared across the country at railway stations and on the tube as a poignant reminder of those who never came back.

This, then is the context in which Aftermath appears and, happily, one which its curation reflects – presenting a picture of a diverse and complex technological war that unnaturally ravaged the individual body with ramifications for the state’s duty of care. As you wander through the eight rooms of this exhibition, many of which are dedicated to images of suffering, neglect and decay, the question in your mind is “was it worth it”? The answer for many artists is surprisingly complicated, and far more nuanced than our embedded image of disillusion and slaughter.

Taking a multinational, multi-service perspective allows us to see that irrespective of victory, Britain, France and Germany were united by the devastating impact of war on their societies, that they shared the tricky post-war problem of how to appropriately design memorials to the fallen, and how to support the huge numbers of disabled veterans released back into society, many of whom were left poor and destitute. Aftermath grapples with the idea of renewal and rebirth at a time when the cost of war was so visible and how art, like poetry, memoir-writing and ex-servicemen associations, became a vital outlet for men to continually relive and revisit the most horrific, but also the most meaningful, experience of their lives.

What strikes you first is the pity of it, the human cost replicated in scene after scene showing the dead, dying or merely absent on the battlefield. The tin hat, Aftermath argues became a potent symbol of death in many art works, shorthand for the loss of life its emptiness implies, with three hats displayed in a central case. But artists were also honest about what they saw, and Room 1 on Battlefields and Ruins shows the carnage of broken bodies in a series of powerful paintings. Luc-Albert Moreau’s 1918 piece Chemin des Dames Assault may be abstract but clearly shows the brutal death of a soldier impaled on a tree. This is far from the quiet heroism that memorials usually suggest, here death is cruel and real and ugly. Nowhere more so than in Paul Nash’s Wire from 1918-19 showing a tree trunk smashed to pieces, a metaphor for the human body, or Christopher Nevinson’s Paths of Glory [1917] whose coppery swirls glisten in the light of the gallery giving a strange ethereal quality to the dead soldiers face down in the mud. Nevinson’s picture is one of the most powerful in the show, not just a fine war image but one of the finest paintings ever created.

As soon as you step inside, the scale and breadth of the war becomes startlingly clear, and the diversity of artistic responses is striking. In this first room alone, paintings sit alongside sculpture, photographs and videos, positioned against other commemorative outlets including battlefield guides and souvenirs made from shell casing or bullets. Walking into Room 2, focusing on official memorialisation, you start to notice your emotional response to the pieces, where works by Charles Sergeant Jagger and Stanley Spencer are testament to the ongoing confusion and sense of fracture that remained in the years following the Armistice. Jagger’s use of realistic military clothing and weapons reflecting the technological advances in equipment drew praise from contemporaries, and in a model for his Great Western Railway memorial he dressed a soldier in a greatcoat with eyes downcast to the letters he’s reading from home, speaking volumes about the pain the outcomes of war were unable to reconcile. Spencer reiterates this in his painting Unveiling Cookham War Memorial [1922] as people hang from net-curtained windows, and a sombre-faced crowd surge forward to see this architectural response to war, still grieving, still remembering at the annual recitation of the names of the fallen.

That cost of war is stark too in Frank Owen Salisbury’s 1920 depiction of The Passing of the Unknown Warrior whose large-scale funeral cortege along Whitehall has representatives of all three services escorting the flag-draped coffin of this lasting symbol of war’s futility. Notably, the living are primarily high-ranked, middle-aged men, the leaders of war giving thought to the once young life they are about to inter in Westminster Abbey. Here, in the heart of the British Establishment, the “Traces of War” are vividly captured by Salisbury, making the perfect link to the next part of the exhibition that considers artistic representations of men who survived but were physically damaged by the conflict.

Although produced for scientific study, Henry Tonks’s images of facial injuries drawn in pale colours are remarkably graphic but full of empathy for his patients that make them difficult, but important, viewing. Likewise, Rosine Cahen’s work in Villennis Hospital are a thoughtful record of the injuries sustained by French soldiers. But there is a political purpose at work here too, with curators Emma Chambers and Rachel Smith selecting accompanying work that reflects the widespread failure to support disabled veterans. Not the first-time men had returned with bodily damage inflicted by warfare, the scale of returnees unable to work or resume their former lives was certainly new, and neither French, German or British societies were ready to respond to their needs, despite greater visibility of disabled veterans in France.

Conrad Felixmuller’s 1919 Soldier in the Madhouse I and II reflect the confusion of the psychological effect of war, their powerful lines and geometric shapes suggesting the distortion of the mind and anxiety of the sufferer – something health systems were largely ill prepared to support. More shocking is the way in which disabled veterans are depicted, often ignored or reduced to penury, their physical appearance surprising, and sometimes even frightening. This work by artists like Otto Dix and George Grosz was designed to reflect society’s mistreatment of their veterans, and these simple pen sketches remain a powerful indictment of their failure.

Despite Dix’s claim to “bare witness”, his work is full of political fervour. His 1924 prints, on display in Room 5, are horrifying reflections of men at war; Wounded Man shows a face ravaged with pain and trapped in a kind of hell, while Mealtime in the Trenches at first glance looks like an arctic scene as a huddled and freezing figure eats tentatively in the howling blizzard, his fear emanating from the picture. Dix was even more candid in Skull and Dance of Death drawing on images of mortality as creatures begin to inhabit a now decayed head, while in the latter bodies are strewn across the barbed wire landscape of No Man’s Land. In the same room, Kath Kollowitz’s 1922 woodcuts were an outlet for her own grief at the death of her son, with a series of images of the Home Front as bereaved mothers, parents and pregnant lovers comment on the consequences of death for those left behind – not just emotionally but in the economic effect on entire families left without a breadwinner.

Resentment also continued towards war profiteers and the thoughtless public who enjoyed themselves while men died abroad, and this was reflected in numerous artworks. Max Beckmann captures a lovely geometric energy in his print of dancers called Malepartus [1917], while in Room 7 on Post-war People, William Roberts’s incredible 1923 painting The Jazz Club (The Dance Party) cannot be viewed enough. Fantastically vibrant Roberts’s stylised image reflects the excitement of the new age, of music blaring from an overlarge gramophone which guides the dancing couples in a leaning pack. Meanwhile, Edward Burra and George Grosz focus on the venality of the public, so Burra’s The Snack Bar from 1930 shows a blowsy woman, over-made-up sitting at a counter while a man in the foreground slices a ham. There’s a whiff of death and decay about the scene, something garish and unsettling. Likewise, Grosz’s powerful image of a businessman ignoring the plight of the haggard soldier and working man behind him in Grey Day [1921] is a striking indictment of those who turned their backs on veterans once the war was won.

It doesn’t all work and rooms focusing on surrealism, agricultural scenes and post-war cities feel out of place. They were legitimate reactions to war and are rightly encompassed by Aftermath’s wider examination of artistic change, but in light of the emotional reaction created by the other rooms, they feel bland and distracting – not that it isn’t a treat to see works like The Garden Enclosed by war veteran David Jones [1924], last seen in the Sussex Modernism show at Two Temples Place, but pastoral landscapes by those who didn’t participate in the conflict seem somehow less important with the political power of Otto Dix and Christopher Nevinson fresh in your mind.

As we reach the final months of a four-year commemoration programme, there have been many significant artistic responses that have widened our general understand of the implications of the First World War and the men from all over the world who fought in all services on all sides. Aftermath feels like the summation of all that work, building-up to this thoughtful and important show. Our public memory of disillusioned soldiers unwillingly sacrificed is beginning to shift; from the first day of the war, reactions to it were complex, overwhelming and fluctuating. What Aftermath does is remind us that death was not the only outcome of the war, men came home and had to go on living in a fractured and uncertain society with no idea how to care for them and what it all meant. Their artistic responses captured in this wonderful exhibition shows they spent a lifetime trying to find out.

Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One is at Tate Britain until 23 September. Tickets start ay £16 with concessions available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.

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Machinal – Almeida Theatre

Machinal - Almeida Theatre

Violent crimes committed by women always seem more shocking, as though the idea of overcoming their supposedly nurturing and gentle natures somehow amplifies the evil of their bloodthirsty acts. Some of the most famous cases stay with us – Lizzie Borden who killed both her parents, Alma Rattenbury who murdered her husband and Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in the UK. Time and again these stories are examined in cultural spaces, including endlessly revived plays like Terrence Rattigan’s Cause Celebre, society is fascinated by women who don’t conform, unwilling to accept that some are equally capable of the most savage acts.

Based on a similar case, in 1928 journalist and playwright Sophie Treadwell captured the soul-crushing restrictions placed on women in her impressive expressionist play Machinal. Far more than just a shocking murder story, it is an anatomy of a woman driven to despair by the stifling pressure to marry and have children merely because it was expected of her – a theme that will resonate powerfully with those who 90 years on are still encouraged to do the same. The central character’s continual cry to be let alone rings true today, society hasn’t changed so very much after all.

Taking place over nine scenes Machinal follows “Young Woman”, who through marriage, children and notoriety earns the name Helen Jones, and is working as a stenographer in a busy typing pool. Frequently late for work because of her subway claustrophobia, her colleagues speculate that the boss Jones wants to marry her. Equally confined by the tiny tenement apartment she shares with her overbearing mother, the play cuts to the wedding night and later to the birth of their first child where she becomes increasingly disgusted with her life, and desperate to escape. Then, a liberating encounter with “First Man”, leads Helen to take a drastic step to secure her freedom.

Revived at the Almeida Theatre, Natalie Abrahami’s production has a post-film noir aesthetic that adds a seedy darkness to Treadwell’s story. Miriam Buether has created a proscenium arch set with a tilted mirrored ceiling, a black box that confines Helen to a series of shadowy rooms in Jack Knowles’s low light. The action is then directly relocated to a series of passing decades, with each scene taking place in a slightly different era to its predecessor. Some critics found this either distracting or unnecessary, creating a rootlessness that upends the production, but there is much to admire not only in the way Buether recreates the essence of each period, but also in the expectations of women.

Had director Abrahami left the story in the 1920s, or picked any time until the present day, its purpose would have remained as relevant and clear – the joy of such a well-constructed play – and in that sense this transience is superfluous. Yet Buether’s design underscores, without distracting from, its political point that women’s essential freedom to design their own lives is no more a reality now that it was in the 1920s.

And it’s gorgeous to look at; darkness envelops every peripheral point of the stage, creeping around our beleaguered heroine as if about to drag her into the its folds at any moment. The focus of each scene, while dimly lit, are boldly picked-out often in burning lurid colour in the centre, purposefully constructed to emphasise the continuing isolation of the protagonist as her world shrinks from office to family. From a 1920s/30s typing pool full of rhythmic staccato clacks, to the hot pink blanket covering the honeymoon bed, to the citrus sofa of the marital home, the deliberate use of vivid colour contrasts so brutally with Helen’s emotional experience – she couldn’t feel less vibrant, refreshed or passionate as she slowly suffocates.

The visual effect appears to owe much to high fashion photographer Miles Aldridge, and its not hard to see his influence in the creation of striking stage images. Often in his work he places doll-like models in domestic environments – kitchens, supermarkets, gardens – playing on the Stepford Wives association of these empty-minded, plastic creations. Most relevant to Buether’s choices in Machinal, is the way he clashes and contrasts tones of highly saturated colour to add a sense of heightened reality, a falsity that suits the pressure on Helen to conform to societal expectations of marriage and parenting. Cunningly, Buether rolls-back these ideas in the three scenes where Helen feels most free, the gorgeous softly lit 1970s bar, the warm bedroom of her lover and the grey formality of the courtroom.

One of the joys of Machinal, is the sparsity of information offered in the text. Treadwell shies away from excessive exposition to show us only the crucial or formative moments that set Helen on the road to destruction. Plot is not quite the point of this clever play, but the emotional build of the character as she is ground beyond endurance, unwilling to submit to further automation. There is so much we don’t (or need to) see as the action skips from office to hotel to delivery room. Even the crime itself only becomes clear long after the fact as the prosecution delivers its attack, pushing Helen for the final time – a scene that lacks the sharply-honed dialogue and stylistic flair of the earlier action – as 90 carefully-controlled minutes arrive at their still shocking conclusion. This is referenced throughout by Knowles’s blinding flash of light that takes the audience between scenes, a jolt of electricity transporting us through time and a symbol of the greater force to come.

It’s not just the visual effects that are striking as Helen’s mental solitude is also under permanent aural attack. Designed by Ben and Max Ringham, the soundscape here is extraordinary, blasting in at the beginning and end of every scene, and almost muted to a low rumble of sound as the action plays out, appropriately reflecting the machine-gun-like delivery of Treadwell’s pointedly-constructed dialogue. There are typewriters nosily in tune with one another, drills beyond the maternity ward, music from the bar floats into the wedding night, all implying an exciting world beyond which Helen is prevented from enjoying, entombed as she is in a series of dark rooms.

As Helen, Emily Berrington has exactly the right tone of exhausted defiance, a woman standing slightly back from her own life as though observing from a distance, unable to stop the machinations of duty and expectation from pulling her under. None of the performances are designed specifically to earn audience sympathy, but instead act as representations of social archetypes, and Berrington, with considerable skill, consciously muffles the performance to convey an idea of Helen being constantly underwater, abstracted from her own actions as though impelled by some external force.

As Helen ticks the boxes of marriage and family, we see her develop from the fatigued young secretary, physically buffeted by those by around her, to a no less frustrated but more confident woman who takes a drastic step to release herself. The credibility of Berrington’s performance carries the audience through all of these stages, building up a picture of someone who has shouldered all they can bear, while clearly relishing the one taste of freedom she’s ever offered that becomes the tipping point.

Everyone else in Treadwell’s stylised piece becomes a vivid sketch, moments of unbearable noise -like the sound intrusions around Helen – that she cannot block out. Her former boss and husband Jones, played by Jonathan Livingstone, is a decent enough man with a good job and seemingly devoted to his wife and family, but Livingstone ensures we see him from Helen’s point of view. He too has a societal role to fulfil as provider and employer, so his demands for her affection seem to him something he is due by right, an access to her attention and her body bestowed on him by marriage. It’s subtle work from Livingstone who only hints at these ideas while using his appearances to suggest a man satisfied with his consumption-based life.

In a limited speaking role, Denise Black has a wonderful scene as Helen’s mother early in the show who in equal measures pushes and chastises her daughter for deciding to marry. Her mother is another noise in Helen’s life, dragging her down with responsibilities of care while Black captures her own struggle as a working-class woman raising a daughter alone. Abrahami uses her large supporting cast to create the crush of the city in the opening scene on the subway, the busy office and later the courtroom which in Buether’s box-like proscenium arch makes even the small Almeida stage feel claustrophobic. The extended cast also bring energy to Arthur Pita’s choreography used to underscore the punchy rhythm of Treadwell’s text.

Machinal is the type of production that only the Almeida seems able to produce, with an inventive vision that simultaneously draws you into the story while still keeping you at arms length. As observers, Treadwell is asking us to see Helen’s pain but remain numb to it, and instead to reflect on the mounting pressures that pushed her to an extreme act of violence. The sensationalism of female crime hasn’t much changed since the 1920s, but nor have the voices telling us our primary purpose is to marry and reproduce. Treadwell certainly feels ahead of her time, and the Almeida has produced a first-rate version of her finest work.

Machinal is at The Almeida Theatre until 21 July. Tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Donmar Warehouse

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie - Donmar Warehouse

While few would now agree that your schooldays are the best of your life, we would still admit to being shaped by our favourite teachers. Looking back, whether at primary or secondary level, the best classroom experiences came from discovering an aptitude for a particular subject or settling on a future career that the best teachers always encouraged, no matter how outlandish. Equally important as you grew up were the teachers who could communicate with you as individuals rather than another homogeneous set of pupils, whose intelligence, interest and enthusiasm would earn your respect. No wonder that drama has so frequently turned to the schoolroom for inspiration.

From Goodbye Mr Chips to Dangerous Minds on film, not to mention Carry on Teacher, to Rattigan’s The Browning Version and Alan Bennett’s The History Boys on stage, the teacher-student relationship is continually re-examined. While there has never been more pressure on modern teachers with strict curricula, endless testing and copious paperwork, fictional tutors are, for the most part, curiously free of such restrictions, able to use their unconventional methods to set their charges on the road to a brighter future. One of the most famous literary inventions of them all, is also the most controversial – is Jean Brodie a ‘progressive’ educator or a worrying menace to the mind of her ‘girls’.

A hundred years since the birth of novelist Muriel Spark, her 1961 tale The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie has been adapted for the Donmar Warehouse by Blackbird playwright David Harrower and directed by Polly Findlay. Page to stage adaptations can be perilous, truncating complex inner voices and motivations to fit the conventions of theatre that on the whole tends to work to a standard 2.5 hour run time, includes an interval at a suitable dramatic moment, and relies on certain expectations of conflict and resolution to propel the plot while sustaining audience attention – some theatre has moved away from this prescriptive approach, but most retains the format. All of this is the enemy of the novel, where authors have long experimented with flexible forms, shifting narratives and prolonged introspection that can seem flat and indulgent when transposed to a visual medium.

This is not the first time Spark’s book has been adapted and several theatrical versions have gone before. Yet, most people will know the 1969 film with Maggie Smith in the title role that allowed Brodie’s most famous phrases to enter the popular consciousness and become synonymous with her performance – to the point of caricature – right down the to genteel Edinburgh accent. This brings its own weight of expectation to Harrower’s new interpretation, with audience members coming anticipating a version of the novel, the film or both, with perhaps a clearly formed idea of how individuals and circumstances should be portrayed. How much viewers enjoy this may depend on their preparedness to relinquish their preconceptions about the characters.

Told in flashback, the story is Sandy’s memory, a former Brodie girl and, as the play begins, about to become a nun planning to take a vow of silence. Tracked down by a journalist who is interested in her previously published book, Sandy starts to talk about her arrival aged 11 at the Marcia Blaine School, where she and a select number of girls – Joyce, Monica, Mary and Jenny – fall under the spell of Miss Brodie, fascinated by her air of freedom, cultural knowledge and political fervour. As the children transform into young women, Miss Brodie’s influence makes its mark on all of them, while her ongoing flirtation with Music Teacher Mr Lowther and Art Teacher Mr Lloyd spills over into all their lives, exposing the extent of her effect on the girls.

While not an especially radical reinterpretation, Harrower has created a version of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie that recognisably celebrates the original novel and the charisma of its leading lady, while carefully sidestepping any parallels to the famous film. From first to last, the spectre of Maggie Smith and Celia Johsnon are banished, allowing a new cast to give shape and purpose to these roles. It’s a fairly safe production, using a conventional structure that loads the first half with praise and admiration for the inspiring teacher, while the second begins to tear at her motivation.

Harrower spends plenty of time establishing the key characters in the hour before the interval, building-up Miss Brodie as a free-spirit, a vision in scarlet, unwilling to conform to the rules and expectations of Marcia Blaine. A series of classroom scenes reveal her animated, if gossipy, teaching style, and what begins as a willingness to share stories of her life with her 11-year old charges soon includes criticisms of the headmistress and making her personal opinions the definitive response to a variety of topics when she starts to treat the girls as her confidants. Harrower’s adaptation renders this well, offering a sketch of life at the school that opens-up Miss Brodie’s method. Mirroring the girls’ experience, the kindliness of Act One becomes something more complex in Act Two.

After the interval, four years have gone by and the girls, now 15, are in the senior school and not directly taught by Miss Brodie. With so much of the real plot to now fit into the final hour of the show, this production makes clear the shifting affection of some girls has severed the closeness with their former teacher. And while it covers all the key consequences of her teaching style, the Donmar’s adaptation is slightly less successful in emphasising the political and sexual corruption that Miss Brodie advocates, actively using her girls like puppets to vicariously fulfil semi-romantic ideals she refuses to succumb to herself.

Partially, this is a desire to retain a shred of sympathy for the character, not wanting to entirely dismantle the affection that Sandy in particular, and the audience has developed for her. Although this is framed as Sandy’s story, it’s clear from the final scene, which appears out of chronological sequence, that it is Miss Brodie this production wants us to look at rather than the results of her work. The significant moment of political influence that Miss Brodie wields is lightly referenced earlier but the key conversation and its outcome are quickly dispatched in two rapid scenes, likewise the sexual encounter she encourages is glossed over rather than seen as a monstrous attempt to manipulate a young woman. These moments, and the outcomes of Miss Brodie’s intimacy with her set, could be considerably darker, leaving the audience with a more ambiguous image to take home with them.

Lia Williams is an actor who never fails to find exactly the right tone for a character and always brings something fresh to her interpretation. As Miss Brodie, Williams carefully controls every aspect of her interpretation, from the way she carries herself to the particular intonation of the soft Edinburgh accent. Dressed by Designer Lizzie Clachlan in tailored reds and greens to complement a meticulously curled strawberry blonde wig, Williams steps lightly across the stage, arms outstretched, or fingers delicately poised to emphasise her point as she imparts her wisdom to the class. Her physical presence is purposefully contrived to suggest a woman who tightly controls her image, consciously designing the impression of perfection she wants to convey to garner the exact devotional response she desires.

Beneath, there is a warmth to her exuberant tales in which Williams demonstrates how easy it would be for her to charm you, but away from the classroom hints are given of the more sullied desires beneath the surface. The way Williams looks at Edward MacLiam’s Mr Lloyd conveys a raging lust she struggles to hold in check, while actively manipulating the emotions of Angus Wright’s Mr Lowther to feed her vanity while actively dismisses his advances at every turn. As events begin to unravel in Act Two, Williams suggests something almost desperate in Miss Brodie, as her star begins to wane and the affection she ‘demanded’ from the girls dissipates. Although it’s an easy association, there’s something of Blanche Dubois about her, all affectation, secrets and delusion that make you wonder if any of the elaborate stories she’s told – even that of her deceased fiancé – were ever true.

Rona Morison has the more difficult task of portraying Sandy at three different stages of her life – aged 11, 15 and approximately 25 – which isn’t always as clear as it could be. The show’s structure allows director Polly Findlay to cut directly between the elder Sandy discussing events with the Journalist (Kit Young) at the convent and walking directly into the school, but she’s not a character you come to know. Morison does the best with what she is given, but as an observer to much of the action, Sandy’s own motivations, her continuing devotion to Miss Brodie long after the other girls have departed and her crucial role in the conclusion are left fairly unexplored.

Some of the girls are less well-defined, so in a tightly packed two hours and 15 minutes of stage time, there’s only space to see the wider set as Miss Brodie describes them, the intelligent Monica (Grace Saif), the wannabe actress Jenny (Helena Wilson) and meek Mary (Emma Hindle). Nicole Coughlan’s Joyce Emily more complete captures the childlike manner than the other performers, arriving as a sweetly self-conscious and adorable 11-year-old who desperately wants to be included, but feels the pain of not quite finding her own group, while as a 15-year-old Joyce’s political awakening could be given more room in the text, Coughlan imbues Joyce with a naïve idealism and determination that make an impact.

There is good support from Angus Wright’s puppy-dog-like Mr Lowther who only has to be reasonably dull and devoted to Miss Brodie, although his insistance on pressing his feelings in front of the girls adds a nice touch of determined awkwardness. MacLiam’s Mr Lloyd has a small role but cuts a dash as a fairly glamorous figure in his own right, artistic, surprisingly carefree despite his many children and service in the Great War which contrasts well with the staid school atmosphere and makes him a worthy flirtation for Miss Brodie. As Headmistress Miss MacKay, Sylvestra Le Touzel is a granite-like presence, occasionally a little two quiet even for the Donmar’s intimate space, yet her determination to remove Miss Brodie is as calculating as it is cool.

On Clachlan’s tomb-like set, this production of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie contrasts cold-learning, and harsh realities with the idea of life experience and vivacity, separated by the ringing of bells that hang from the ceiling signalling the end of lessons and scenes. As the play unfolds, Harrower charts how we come to know the human foibles and failings of the adults in our lives, ones which at an impressionable age can shape you in the wrong way. It’s not quite the crème de la crème, deliberately pacifying some of Miss Brodie’s dark sexual and political influences in order to retain sympathy for her, but it is an enjoyable and distinct adaptation that does make you wonder where your favourite teachers are now and how much they really influenced you.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is at the Donmar Warehouse until 28 July, tickets start at £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1  


Julie – National Theatre

Julie - National Theatre

In the last 5 years some of the National Theatre most memorable productions have centred on the experience of woman who feel powerless or constrained. Carrie Cracknell’s fearsome 2014 version of Medea with Helen McCrory felt like the beginning of a shift towards a greater understanding of literature’s most complex heroines, shackled to a smothering social order they have nothing to do with creating. In 2016, Cracknell and McCrory returned with a sublime adaption of Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea which retained its post-war setting but in Tom Scutt’s fresh design brought a raw emotional intensity to the story. The same can be said of Ruth Wilson’s Hedda Gabler which opened later that year in which Ivo van Hove’s modern setting brought a clarity to Ibsen that allowed Wilson to shine.

These examples made it look easy but reimagining a classic isn’t necessarily straightforward. While it may seem that all a Company should do is decide whether to move the action to the modern day and if the original text needs to be updated, then put it in a funky, preferably spacious set and let the plaudits flow in, it is a lot more complicated than that. They also need to really understand, and most importantly to convey, the psychology of the characters. If you’re removing cluttered sets and archaic language, then the stage has to be filled with something else, the inner lives of the characters writ large, painful and inescapable, taking the audience on the dark path the protagonist embarks on.

In the National’s new production of Miss Julie based on Strindberg’s 1889 tragedy about class and aimless despair, writer Polly Stenham has made her choices; as well as dropping Miss from the title, the action is relocated from nineteenth-century Sweden to a house party in 2018 Hampstead. Stenham too has placed Stindberg aside and written the text herself using the key plot points to shape a more up-to-date interpretation, sidestepping the coyness of Strindberg’s original for open discussion of sex, money and drug-taking.

As maid Kristina and chauffeur Jean tidy the kitchen, a birthday party rages in the room upstairs. It’s the early hours of the morning, people are dancing wildly, filling the house with beat, and sweat and noise, but birthday girl Julie feels lost, abandoned, alone. Recently dumped by her fiancé and with no sign of her father, Julie throws herself wildly into the party, finding it increasingly difficult to paper over the cracks, or pretend she’s having a good time. Wandering into the kitchen she falls into conversation with Jean, and as a heat grows between them they become reckless. Knowing they cannot be together, the pair toy with each other until a crisis is reached. In the aftermath, both must decide what their future holds.

Julie is at heart an examination of how easy betrayal can be. In various guises, characters are disloyal to one another breaking conventions for one small moment of satisfaction that ultimately seems insignificant against the tribulations it unleashes. Julie is a destructive and a self-destructive presence, which acts like a contagion during the play, dragging others into her sphere of misery. With surprisingly little goading, Jean dismissively betrays the warm and easy relationship he has with fiancée Kristina. At the same time Julie, claiming to adore Kristina betrays their years of friendship by pursuing something she doesn’t particularly need just for the pleasure of being wanted for a moment. The consequences of this double attack on Kristina suggest only misery and regret will follow.

But both the central characters also end up betraying themselves with reckless action outside of their usual character that backs them into a corner. Despite Jean (Eric Kofi Abrefa) claiming he once held an unrequited love for Julie, impossible to act upon given his role as a servant, you sense that he’s not the person he becomes on this one night. While remote and arguably underwritten in Stenham’s adaptation, he’s not someone we come to know particularly well, but there is a sense of moral decency that runs through him, of not wanting to cross the line, of responsibility and of sober restraint. And it is Julie who pushes him to betray his own character, to act beyond his usual limits for which he feels ashamed.

As the star of the show Vanessa Kirby’s Julie is more complex, described early-on by Kristina as a character in “technicolour”, she is full of contradictions, loves partying, claims to be gregarious but it’s all a front to hide her overwhelming lack of purpose. Clearly still grieving from the suicide of her mother an unspecified number of years before and reeling from the end of her relationship, Kirby’s Julie seems brittle but has moments of bravado, even shocking selfishness and cruelty that make her difficult to like – including a League of Gentlemen-inspired moment with a budgie. In confrontations with Jean he accuses her of being rich, entitled, spoiled and with the luxury of time, allowing her to be self-indulgent in her misery because she has nothing else to do – it’s hard to disagree.

But Kirby has played enough of these types of women on stage and screen to bring out the underlying complexity in Julie’s situation. She may be all of the things Jean says, but she knows it and that is the key to her disillusion with the world and her inability to claw her way out of the box she has created for herself. Being the good-time-girl is all she knows how to do, not because she wants to, but because its like putting on armour for her, a way to face each day without succumbing to the desperation that her encounter with Jean finally unplugs. These are the wonderful female performances that Director Carrie Cracknell so often elicits, and Kirby illuminates the stage, even left alone and unspeaking at the end, she fills the room with a strange intensity, she’s pushed Julie almost to the point where the audience can barely sympathise with her, yet she remains compelling.

Kirby’s performance is the high point in show that elsewhere has some problems to solve before Thursday’s press night. At only 85-minutes and after a raucous start, there are passages where the energy noticeably dips. So much of the action takes place in duologue between Julie and Jean, and despite a lovely moment when they first assess each other from opposite ends of the sizeable Lyttelton stage with such a charge that they could be face-to-face, with so little of Jean’s character elucidated and with a more watered-down class divide, their interactions too frequently feel as though there’s little at stake when the opposite should be true.

Aspects of Stenham’s modern setting are well realised by Cracknell and her team, the raging house party that dominates the raised area at the back of the stage makes for an energetic beginning, a context for the action to come and lasting a surprisingly long time before anyone speaks. Tom Scutt’s clinical kitchen set and intimidating concrete table is at once the image of modish luxury, a desire for chic and expensive homes devoid of personality, but as a sliding wall blocks out the dwindling party the tone changes, with Scutt’s work, lit by Guy Hoare, increasingly resembling a windowless prison, reiterating Julie’s concern with the bubble and trap of privilege.

Yet there is a nagging thought all the way through that the whole production feels like a pretence, ironically mirroring that same idea the characters have of themselves. With so many successful modern adaptations of classic work, why update Strindberg’s text at all? Surely there is plenty of scope for producing a modern version of the original work that doesn’t require a full rewrite. The production wants to feel edgy but peppering the text with references to sex and drugs is no replacement for the uneven tension between Jean and Julie. The nature of the class system has so changed that a liaison between the boss’s daughter and the chauffeur isn’t the scandal it once would have been, while any intended inter-racial subtext is entirely diluted and all-but irrelevant. Other than Jean already being in a relationship, it’s hard to see why the consequences of their liaison should be so mutually destructive.

To make this work, the audience needs to know much more about the other characters and in particular why Jean would suddenly risk everything. Julie says he doesn’t give much away, but for the viewer it makes it difficult to understand and appreciate his motivation, or to invest in the personal fall-out. Arguably, with the weakening of the master-servant relationship in modern Britain there were other ways to recast Jean’s position that would have better explained the hold Julie’s father would have over him, deference doesn’t quite ring true, whereas a monetary / business connection could be more viable, making him a rising star in her father’s firm with plenty to lose. Similarly, Thalissa Teixeira rings every ounce of nuance from the role of Kristina, a kind friend and loyal girlfriend. Teixeira delivers a superb final shame-inducing speech which bursts Jean and Julie’s bubble, but if you’re modernising the play why not give her more to do than wander on silently to clean in the downtime between interactions. The history of Kristina’s protective, almost motherly, support for Julie could be better explored in the text which needs to offer a more complete understanding of the scale of the betrayals that occur, and a greater insight into Julie’s family life to ratchet up the tension in the aftermath of the party.

Re-imagining a classic is then not as easy as it sounds, and while there is lots to like in Cracknell’s production that pushes Kirby’s multifaceted performance to the front, it’s hard not to feel a little underwhelmed in part. There is a balance to be found in rewriting a well-known play – as those like Patrick Marber can attest with successful adaptations of Three Days in the Country and Don Juan in Soho –  one that honours the original while making changes that are more suited to the modern setting. While Stenham retains plenty of Strindberg’s purpose, Julie doesn’t go quite far enough in remoulding the political and psychological shape of its characters for the twenty-first century. Imaginative it certainly is and well performed, but like a later sequel to a classic novel it bears the marks of slightly unsatisfactory imitation. May as well have just adapted Strindberg.

Julie is at the National Theatre until 08 September and tickets start at £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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